Race Weekend Central

2023 IndyCar BITNILE.com Grand Prix of Portland Preview

Two races remain on the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series calendar, and first up is the Pacific Northwest swing into Portland, Oregon at the flat Portland International Raceway. 

IndyCar is in their second stint at the track, which they visited from 1984 to 2007, and returned to in 2018. The 12-turn, 1.964-mile track therefore has a great history with the series, as detailed by Alex Gintz earlier in the week, and amazingly has the record for closest 1-2 and 1-2-3 finish on a road course in IndyCar, both from the 1997 race. 

Due to its location along the Columbia River, the circuit is very flat, and has a vibe that’s similar to the Cleveland Grand Prix at Burke Lakefront Airport during CART’s heyday with its expansive view for fans in the stands. 

Last year, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin won the 110 lap feature, taking his third IndyCar win. Will he be able to repeat, and close his season on a high note or does a new winner rise from the field?

55

The key number tossed out for Alex Palou to have to win the championship is 55 points. That means, if he leaves Portland on Sunday with that gap to teammate Scott Dixon, then he is the champion. How does that work out? There are 50 points available to the winner, two points for leading the most laps, one point for leading a single lap, and one point for the pole. Therefore, the total available to earn in a race at most is 54 points, so any margin wider than that is unworkable at the season finale in two weeks’ time. 

However, as soon as the green flag falls on Sunday, Palou is guaranteed five points, as that is the minimum awarded in the 27-car field. At worse, if Palou ranks 25th to last (each position earns five points), then the most he will give up to Dixon, if he maximizes, is 49 points which would then drop the gap to a truly manageable 25 spread to overcome in a race. On the flip side, if Palou walks out with exactly 49, all he will need to do is start the race on Sept. 10 at Laguna Seca and is officially the champion as he will earn no worse than those five points as well as owning the tie-breaker over Dixon with more wins.

ResultPoints
Win50
Most laps led2
Lead at least one lap1
Pole1
25th to 27th placing5

That would take a historic run of bad luck (a curse you say?) to really come to fruition though. In this season, Palou hasn’t placed worse than eighth. His worst finish in his two races at PIR has been 12th, but that was amidst his very public court case against his current team and in the lowest moment of their relationship as he was cut off from Honda engineering meetings. But the other result was a win, so it’s not to say this is a troubling circuit for him. 

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On the other hand, he is racing against a man that defines a quote from Michael Shaara’s book Killer Angels: “There’s nothing so much like god on earth than a general on the battlefield.” Well, Dixon is just that in a racing car, he’s the general of this IndyCar series and no driver wants to see him in their rear view mirror in the standings. Three of his six titles came from chasing down the championship lead with two races to go, and in 2015 he leapt from third to first in the last race.

For Dixie, this isn’t an easy climb though, as the 74-point gap has to be mitigated against Palou’s career year, which was strong enough to rebuild his relationship with Chip Ganassi so the pair would continue on in the future. To ensure he has a chance at Laguna Seca, Dixon not only has to finish higher than Palou, but do enough to cut at least 26 points into the lead. If he wins, gets pole, and dominates the race, Palou can’t notch a top five or it’s basically over.

Still, this would be an epic and legacy defining moment for the six-time IndyCar champion if he somehow made a fight of this Astor Cup chase going to the finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in a week’s time. Sometimes motorsports has those moments that are so unbelievable that they can’t be forgotten. Dixon’s win at Wide World Technology Raceway last week and his immense effort to make this some sort of story heading into the last two races might just be the introduction to a legendary grasp at a record-tying seventh championship.

Lap 1, Turn 1

Dixon’s best hope is that PIR’s famous turn 1 chicane somehow bites at Palou on the first lap. The front straight at Portland leads into a very hard right-hander that leads to some great passing opportunities, but on the start of the race one of its most volatiles. That section has caused mayhem in multiple races.

The rest of the first lap could be mayhem too, as evidenced by the 2018 start when Marco Andretti flipped over the back of another car. Dixon was caught up in that accident but remarkably continued on and earned his fifth title.

The Rest of the Field

While the championship is on-going, the rest of the IndyCar series field is hoping to gather some momentum heading into the offseason. Some drivers have had career breakout years, such as Kyle Kirkwood with his first two wins and Christian Lundgaard, while others have been struggling to find the wins to make a good season a great one.

First on that list of win-hopefuls is Pato O’Ward. As previously discussed, he is one of four drivers that have not won a race this year that did so in 2022 (ironic that the one guy who was first to fall off that list since it was published was Dixon). Go figure.

What’s even more amazing, is if his current stats remain the same with seven podiums and no wins, according to research by Frontstretch colleague Stephen Stumpf, he will join the likes of Gil de Ferran in 1997 and Bobby Rahal in 1990 with similar stats. (Side note, de Ferran was close to grabbing a win, leading on the white flag lap in the famous 1-2-3 finish at PIR in 1997. Mark Blundell instead took his first win.) Tom Sneva set the bar though, with nine podiums and no wins in his 1978 championship season.

All things considered, the year has been a tremendously positive one, but O’Ward has lacked the outright pace to win and still hasn’t mastered the fuel save techniques that others have used to get to the finish. 

Then there are the trials of 2022 IndyCar champion Will Power. A repeat to defend his crown is not in the works as the Team Penske driver is in seventh in the points, the worse-off of the three drivers that compete for the Captain. The good news is he has four podiums and on a string of five top 10s, so maybe there’s a win in the last two races. He’s earned a win at Portland in 2019 and added two other top fives in his six attempts. 

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Rookie of Year All But Decided

Marcus Armstrong is well on his way to getting the Rookie of the Year award. Not bad for a guy only doing street and road courses on the schedule. Four of his 10 races have been top 10s, which is highly impressive compared to the other three rookies who are full-time – Agustin Canapino, Sting Ray Robb, and Benjamin Pedersen – who only have a best finish of 12th by Canapino, thrice. With results like that, it’s possible the New Zealander will get an opportunity to take that No. 11 car full-time next year based on reports, joining incoming rookie Linus Lundqvist who was announced to replace Marcus Ericsson at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2024.

Road Courses Suit Lundgaard

The Dane Lundgaard notched his first IndyCar victory on the streets of Toronto earlier in the year. But a deeper look at his 2023 season shows his best results have come on the permanent road courses. Out of the five done so far, he has three top fives and two other top 10s, with seventh as the furthest back he’s finished. He’ll be in the mix on Sunday.

Predictions

This section has a much less flattering name around the Frontstretch water cooler.

The guesses for the Bommarito 500 weren’t terrible, as O’Ward finished second as predicted. Newgarden choice was playing the odds, as he had won every oval in 2023. Don’t kill the messenger there.

But skipping over Dixon? Karma sometimes will slap you really hard in the face, and that’s what happened.

For this weekend, let’s try one more time to pick these, and if it fails miserably, at Laguna Seca names will be drawn out of a hat.

  1. Dixon – If he can win and do Dixie type things, then the storyline heading into the finale will be more enticing. Otherwise, IndyCar won’t have a great headline to market.
  2. Lundgaard – As mentioned, he’s had a good year on this type of tracks.
  3. O’Ward – Continues to rack up podiums but no wins.

Somewhere from sixth to 27th is Palou, or the championship is basically his.

The 2023 BITNILE.com Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway will be on Sunday, Sept. 3 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

About the author

Tom Blackburn

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. Besides writing the IndyCar Previews and the occasional Inside Indycar, he will hop on as a fill-in guest on the Open Wheel podcast The Pit Straight. His full-time job is with the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. After graduating from Purdue University with a Creative Writing degree, he was commissioned in the Army and served a 15-month deployment as a tank platoon leader with the 3d ACR in Mosul, Iraq. A native Hoosier, he calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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